The Inuit peoples often have the Supreme Being called Sedna as a central figure in their mythology. Many different myths surround her, but the people usually view her as the creator of all life, animal and vegetable. In his landmark study, The Central Eskimo (originally published 1888), Franz Boas explained how the people had important feasts closely connected with their mythology at which they would sing and dance with the drum. “In summer feasts are celebrated in the open air, but in winter a house, called qaggi, . . . singing house, is built for that purpose” (Boas 1888/1964: 192). At these feasts songs and stories connected with Sedna would be performed. Boas describes such a feast for Sedna and her associated myths by the Akudnirmiut of Cumberland Sound:
When it is quite dark a number of Inuit come out of their huts and run crying all round their settlements. Wherever anybody is asleep they climb upon the roof of his hut and rouse him. . . Then a woman and a man (the mirqussang) sit down in the snow. The man holds a knife (sulung) in his hand, from which the feast takes its name, and sings:
Oangaja, jaja jajaja aja
To this song the woman keeps time by moving her body and her arms, at the same time flinging snow on the bystanders. Then the whole company goes into the singing house and joins in dancing and singing. This done, the men must leave the house and stand outside while the mirqussang watch the entrance. The women continue singing and leave the house one by one. They are awaited by the mirqussang, who lead every one to one of the men standing about. The pair must re-enter the singing house and walk around the lamp, all the men and women crying, “Hrr! Hrr!” from both corners of the mouth. . . . The feast is frequently celebrated by all the tribes of Davis and Hudson Strait (Boas 1888/1964: 200-201).
As in the Hiwatha story above, certain characters within the telling of a myth, legend or story frequently perform the songs. This is referred to as a cante fable.
For example, Boas stated about the Inuit tradition: “Many traditions are told in a very abridged form, the substance being supposed to be known. A specimen of this kind is the Sedna tradition. All these tales must be considered recitatives, many of them beginning with a musical phrase and continuing as a rhythmic recitation, others being recited in rhythmic phrases throughout. Other traditions are told in a more detailed and prosaic manner, songs or recitations . . . being sometimes included” (Boas 1888/1964: 240).
The stories that ethnologists, anthropologists, musicologists, and government departments have collected, give us some idea of the rich variety of story-telling traditions. These people, too, have played an important role in preserving oral narratives, and in spreading their importance. The above examples provide a small sampling of myths with musical content.